By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Opposition’s leader yesterday accused the Prime Minister of committing a “poisoning of the well” by “drip feeding” Bahamians assertions about the COVID food assistance initiative that were not yet supported by evidence.
Michael Pintard, the Marco City MP and former Minnis administration Cabinet minister, told the House of Assembly that Philip Davis’ allegation that $10m worth of taxpayer monies were unaccounted for was not supported by the 138-page audit which the latter tabled in Parliament on Monday.
Hitting back at the “hyperbole” used by the Prime Minister to describe the report’s findings, he argued that Mr Davis been “leading the discussion” in such a way as to “reach a conclusion that we have not yet arrived at” in relation to how the $53m worth of taxpayer funds provided to National Food Distribution Task Force members had been spent.
Suggesting that the Prime Minister had been seeking to “muddy the waters” over the COVID food assistance programme ahead of next week’s Budget, Mr Pintard questioned why the Government had not waited for its own internal spending watchdog, the Auditor General’s Office, to complete its own report into the initiative.
And, given the Government’s complaints that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) who participated in the Task Force have been non-cooperative in providing it with requested records and other financial information, the Opposition’s leader queried why it had not used its considerable authority - or requested that the Auditor General’s Office use its own - to compel production.
“One would think that when he laid the food programme report, the Prime Minister would have mentioned these are the steps we are now taking with persons refusing to turn over information to the Government. The Government has tremendous power, the Ministry of Finance and Auditor General have tremendous power, but I digress,” Mr Pintard said.
In response, Mr Davis said the Government is indeed mulling whether to employ such mechanisms to obtain the documents it is seeking. “These are being considered,” he added. “I don’t need to tell you when I will do it. You will be informed at the appropriate time of the steps being taken in relation to that.” The Prime Minister also repeated his denial that he was deliberately seeking to harm the Task Force’s reputation, or that of its NGO participants.
Mr Pintard, though, was unmoved. He argued: “It is most unfortunate that the Government has chosen to drip feed the public with fallacious details surrounding a wide range of issues inclusive of the Food Task Force.
“It’s always a painful experience to listen to private organisations that historically made contributions to The Bahamas, and private individuals’ reputations, taking a beating and the perpetrators are no less than policy makers who are the caretakers of our country and, by extension, our citizens.
“It is possible to hold previous governments accountable for the decisions made or the oversights that they’ve permitted to slip through. It is possible to hold individual organisations that are the beneficiaries of resources from the Bahamian people accountable without savaging the reputation of persons who are not in this place to defend themselves.”
The Opposition leader, arguing that the Prime Minister’s rhetoric was not matched by the audit report findings from Kershala Albury, president and principal consultant at ATI Company Ltd, added: “The report didn’t say that $10m vanished. It said at the time of the report, certain details were unavailable.”
Mr Davis, in his House of Assembly address on Monday, had used the term “unaccounted for” in relation to the $10m rather than “vanished”. This relates to two non-profits that collectively received almost $15.158m - some 28.6 percent of the total $53m spent - which have yet to produce financial records showing how the monies were used.
Lend a Hand Bahamas and IDEA Relief, prior to the report’s publication, had yet to provide ATI Company with any financial records even though they received $11.159m and $3.988m of taxpayer monies respectively. In particular, Lend a Hand Bahamas received 21.05 percent or $1 out of every $5 taxpayer dollars distributed to the Task Force, its share being second only to that of Bahamas Feeding Network, which was handed $11.397m.
Mr Pintard said that while the Free National Movement (FNM) supported holding those who committed any wrongdoing to account, the Government first needed to complete the investigation and use its available powers to compel production of any documents it requires.
“The reality is that if any citizen, public servant or NGO, or anyone associate with them, is engaged in mis or malfeasance, any government is duty-bound to investigate and take action to hold them to account,” he added. “We support that. We do not support the release of incomplete information, leading the discussion with a conclusion that we have not yet arrived at, and that is essentially with the member for Cat Island, Rum Cay and San Salvador did.
“They gave the conclusion, not merely just innuendos, but made concrete statements about persons who sought to use the public purse to enrich themselves without putting on the public record the evidence thereof.... It’s interesting that the Prime Minister and his team did not seek to reveal the independent Auditor General’s report so that we have a more fulsome understanding of the food programme.
“All of us would like to know the complete details, and all of us would like to make sure the resources of the Bahamian people are not misused in any respect.” Mr Davis, on Monday, said the report had uncovered “18 categories of major deficiencies” largely relating to what he branded as poor record-keeping, lack of documentation and the absence of internal controls over how taxpayer monies were spent to feed more than 55,000 Bahamian families after the economy collapsed almost overnight due to COVID.
Blasting what he sought to portray as a lack of transparency and accountability, the Prime Minister also introduced new allegations. He asserted that some of the fees charged by providers were “exorbitant”, zeroing in on a $6 per food parcel “delivery fee” that was invoiced by Showman Bahamas to Hands for Hunger, one of the non-governmental organisations (NGO) responsible for distributing food aid to thousands of needy Bahamian families at COVID-19’s peak.
Mr Davis used language such as “startling”, “astounding” and “breathtaking” to describe the audit’s findings, and what he termed a “lack of co-operation” in producing records of the Task Force’s operations. However, the audit stopped well short of levying any charges or findings of financial misconduct or wrongdoing, instead focusing on problems with procedures, processes and internal controls.
The report also lamented that several NGOs had concentrated their spending and food procurement with several large vendors, such as Sysco Bahamas (Bahamas Food Services); Super Value; Price Right; Sawyer’s Fresh Market; and Showman Ebistro.